Have you ever thought about how you could use internet innovations in discipleship, church and outreach? If that conjures up a horrible mental image of some church ‘Foresight and Planning Committee Towards the Implementation of a Digital Media Strategy’ formulating a series of action points, I want to bring things back to basics for you. Planning church digital media strategy is increasingly important work – please don’t misunderstand me – but I have a feeling that we #digidisciples might be guilty of over-thinking our engagement in the digital sphere because we don’t understand it in context.
Now: Social Networking
Social networking, of course, is one of the great buzzwords of the last decade. Facebook now has 750 million users worldwide: within a year its members will outnumber the citizens of China. Google+ has just launched to great acclaim, introducing brand new ways of organising social groups online. This seems new and dangerous to the outsider, mainly because the landscape changes so quickly. For those who don’t know their Retweet from their LinkedIn, the digital sphere is not just a new language but a whole new alphabet.
In reality, it is all much simpler than it looks. The Web 2.0 (or 3.0, or whatever.0 we are up to now) is all about social interaction. With that, the Internet shares the same fundamental elements as every medium since civilisation began.
How can Christians use internet innovations in discipleship, church and outreach? The answer is not found in some Holy Grail of Internet-Christianity (or, I tentatively suggest, #digidiscipleship). Instead, it is found in the long history of Christians using innovations in communications techniques in their discipleship, church and outreach.
Then: Biblical Stories to Guttenberg
In Old Testament times, community identity was found in narratives which were passed from generation to generation. The people of Israel shared stories of God’s work through their ancestors: promising a nation to Abraham; wrestling with Jacob; using Joseph to save Egypt from famine. As well as sharing stories, they shared rituals which pointed to God’s work amongst them: in the Passover; in the sacrifices; in their Day of Jubilee.
The gospels suggest that Jesus communicated largely in parables and short sayings. Those concise messages were easy to remember and quick to challenge those who heard them. His disciples, after Pentecost, preached sermons and explained the scriptures to anyone who would listen. Paul went to the synagogues and forums to debate and reason with Jewish rabbis and Greek philosophers.
The church has communicated through song, from the early hymns hinted at in the New Testament to the modern worship songs we sing today. It has communicated through the written word in the Bible and in works of theology. Guttenberg was revolutionary for his day – perhaps the scribes got their heads together to plan how to use his printing press in discipleship, church and outreach? The outcome was an explosion in theological tracts, pamphlets, books and wholehearted tomes which turned the world upside down.
#Digidisciple(s) continue the stories
#digidiscipleship is a new concept, and it is fantastic that we can meet together at the Big Bible Project to think through the nature of our Christian witness online. But in a profound way, there is nothing new about #digidiscipleship whatsoever. The gospel is the same as it has always been, we are to live out our faith and share it with others just as we always have; only now we have the wonderful tool of the Internet with which to do so.
Paul wrote to the church in Thessaloniki to defend the authenticity of his witness, and that of Silas and Timothy who ministered there with him. His evidence for genuine, authentic, Jesus-centred love includes this striking verse: ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8)
As we think through how to live in the digital sphere, let’s not get bogged down or distracted by fads and trends. Instead, let’s use this wonderful gift of the Internet to communicate just as Paul did. Let’s communicate because we love. Let’s communicate the gospel, in love. And let’s share our lives with others, in love.
The methods of communication have changed over the centuries, and in this last decade a genuinely incomparable wealth of opportunities has opened up to us as a church. It is absolutely right that we should think through how to engage in the digital sphere as Christian believers. But let’s not forget that although the media changes the message of the gospel does not, and the church is called to share the gospel and our lives in the same way and for the same reason as it always has: because we love.
This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.